Several years ago a study by the largest Protestant denomination in the country found a startling relationship between the length of time pastors had been in their churches, and the growth or decline of those churches. Their finding? Approximately 3/4 of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while 2/3 of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four years. Their conclusion (with which I agree): Long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow. But short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.
So, why do pastors leave their churches? Here are the results of one study where pastors were asked that question …There is an undeniable relationship between pastoral tenure and church growth. While most growing churches have long-term pastorates, and some non-growing churches have long-term pastorates, it is almost unheard of to find a growing church with many short-term pastorates. Frequent change of pastors seems to negate all the other complicated ingredients that go into a church’s growth mix.
What To Do About It
If you are a pastor, personally and publicly commit to staying in your church for least seven years. (The average pastoral tenure is less than four years.) You may get an itch to leave sooner. But if you stay into the sixth or seventh year, you will likely begin to experience unsurpassed effectiveness and fruitfulness. Once you get past year seven there’s a good chance you’ll want to stay much longer. I agree with Roger Parrot, who says: “Lead as if you’ll be there forever! Imagine that the organization and position you are in right now is what God wants you to do for the rest of your professional life” (Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2009, p. 19).
I was curious about pastoral longevity in the Wesleyan Church. A more comprehensive and correlational study should be done, but last week I called the 25 largest churches in our denomination to find out: 1) When the church was founded, 2) How long the present senior/lead pastor has been at the church, and 3) How long the previous senior/lead pastor had been at the church. What’s your guess?
Senior pastors in the 25 largest Wesleyan churches have been serving in their position for an average of 17.8 years! The previous pastors of these same churches had been there an average of 15.2 years. And 4 of the churches are being led by their founding pastors, who have been there an average of 18.2 years.
Of course, it may be demotivating to imagine being in a church where you see no likelihood of a growing ministry or influence. But why not have faith that there is sufficient opportunity where God has placed you in that church and community…and your task is to tap into it? Don’t fall for the myth that greater ministry is somewhere else! When you plan to stay where you are for the next 20 years, you will approach your ministry with a commitment that will be unshaken by the winds of change, challenge, and time.
If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s good advice for most pastors, but…” don’t let these excuses masquerade as reasons to move:
• More money. Human nature is always dissatisfied, however much we make.
• Conflict. Another characteristic of human nature: conflict is anywhere there are people.
• You’re getting stale. Commit to being a life-time learner. It will keep you and your church in touch with today’s issues.
• Greener pastures. See Philippians 4:12.
• Boredom. To quote Rick Warren, “It’s not about you.”
• Burn-out. Whether you have reached that point or not, take time to retreat and renew. (Start with this article.)
• An exploratory call. We all like to be liked. But just because a church is calling doesn’t mean God is.
• You’re out of sermons. If that’s your reason for moving, I suggest you shouldn’t be in the ministry.
• Too much pressure. So your next church will be without pressure? If your motivation to move is to avoid pressure, see the response above.
If you are a lay church leader, the next time you look for a new pastor, make intended longevity a criteria. If you are a denominational leader, encourage pastors to remain faithful rather than abandon their church in difficult times. (Is “leaving” the advice you would give to a married couple in tough times?)
I believe there is a relationship between the three following statistics:
1. A pastor’s most productive time usually begins in years 5, 6, and 7;
2. The average pastoral tenure in Protestant churches is less than 4 years;
3. Nearly 85% of today’s churches are not growing.
It’s sad that the vast majority of pastors miss potentially their most fruitful—and enjoyable—years of ministry. Remember the Apostle Paul’s wise counsel: “So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith” (Gal. 6:9-10 The Message).